Friday, March 02, 2007

4 x 4s and bullying

Brian Appleyard says:
"...the environment has become an easy political power-play. Green campaigners make this worse by issuing suspect claims."

Then he goes on to say...

"...anti- 4X4 campaigners, as I showed in my recent article, have overstated the numbers and emissions of these cars and made people think any car is okay as long as it is not a 4X4."

I think that he is missing one important point about 4x4s. In this post a while ago (and the comments underneath it), Chris explores the question of taxation as a way of internalising the costs of "other regarding acts which impose harm - congestion, pollution, inconvenience - upon others."

And most of the discussion around cars centre on those two issues: congestion and pollution. I would suggest that the question of inconvenience is under-explored and under-rated.

And I'd like to suggest that - buried in the term 'inconvenience' - is something far more potent: That of 'bullying'. Here's why:

If I - and fifty other pedestrians - are waiting to cross a road, we have to give way to one driver. And in built-up areas where drivers may be expected to drive cautiously, instead they often drive rather assertively - move at the kind of speed that will ensure that people don't get in the way. You know the sort of thing - they avoid eye-contact with pedestrians so that they don't have to respond to an appeal to give way.

If they do slow down, they know that the anarchic British pedestrian will just step in front of them, and - once they've stopped they will be unable to start until everyone has crossed.

So, drivers bully people off the road. And, I suspect, they are partly justified in doing so on two grounds:
  1. Like TV licence payers, they purchase a licence to connect a device to a public utility. They pay road tax in order to establish their right to put the car on the road. Pedestrians don't bear such tax discs, so they should give way.
  2. The economy relies upon open lines of communication. If pedestrians had equal rights with cars, many journeys would be impractical, the economy would slow down, prices would go up, anarchy would ensue and we'd all end up living in mud huts again.
But this bullying has costs attached to it. Studies of social capital (I can't find them at the moment but I'll link to if I relocate them) show how a busy road reduces social connections.

People are less willing to allow their children out of the front door, or to cross the road to neighbours houses, and thereby social connections are lost. In the cases of very busy roads, crossing is almost prohibitive - even for confident adults. And losing these connections reduces our quality of life in many ways.

Now, I'm not an economist, but surely we could quantify and put a price on minor humiliations?

Living in a built up area, I'm frequently annoyed by the way motorists behave when I'm walking my kids to school. They speed down unsupervised side-roads and generally drive in ways that border on illegality (on the phone, doing other things when driving etc), they often have charmless music pumping out of their ugly shitheaps, and so on.

They often rev their engines impatiently when you are using a pedestrian crossing. At junctions - where pedestrians have a right of way, car drivers routinely ignore this. Pedestrians assert their rights only at significant risk to life and limb. So they usually don't assert them at all.

There is also a parallel between drivers and the pricks who crop up in weblog comment boxes. Drivers often behave in a rude and aggressive manner. Like anonymous blog-trolls, they do so because there is no danger of you getting hold of them and giving them the beating that they deserve. Pedestrians are just more polite and considerate than drivers.

I also don't cycle anywhere in London. I'd like to, but it's too dangerous. The law doesn't compensate for the relative damage that motorists can do to cyclists when they drive badly (the worst thing a cyclist can do to a car is to kick the wing-mirror off or scratch a bit of paintwork).

So drivers - in general - need to learn that their collective failure to have regard to the safety of other road users should have a cost. And, as any cyclist will tell you, the bigger the vehicle, the less considerate the driver.

So there is, surely, an argument for taxing vehicles based upon the amount of insulation that they put between themselves and pedestrians? 4x4s would pay more than small cars.

I also have an idea about how the size of such a tax could be set - and how consistency can be applied in this to ensure that compensation is proportionate to the compensation that society seeks through congestion charging / petrol duty. but you'll have to stay tuned to find out what it is.

One final observation though. I bet that - if the public were involved in setting such a tax - that the figure would be an unpleasant surprise for drivers.

3 comments:

Chris said...

If I - and fifty other pedestrians - are waiting to cross a road, we have to give way to one driver. And in built-up areas where drivers may be expected to drive cautiously, instead they often drive rather assertively - move at the kind of speed that will ensure that people don't get in the way. You know the sort of thing - they avoid eye-contact with pedestrians so that they don't have to respond to an appeal to give way.

If they do slow down, they know that the anarchic British pedestrian will just step in front of them, and - once they've stopped they will be unable to start until everyone has crossed.


Apropos of that...

In my hometown, Stroud, a combination of Greens and Tories* are trying a new approach.

This new 'shared spaces' approach has been dubbed 'naked streets' by some, because it includes removing highway signage, traffic lights, speed bumps, centre lines and even pedestrian crossings - but there is much more to it than that.

(Sorry, can't find an 'official' site.)

Apparently that has/is also been/being trialled in part of London (at a cost of £30 million, somehow). I honestly couldn't tell you if it's working in terms of making drivers more careful. I haven't noticed a change, but I guess it'll take a year or so before they have any meaningful data. I assume they're pretty confident - a result of double the number of accidents probably won't be regarded as an unfortunate byproduct of a theory that deserved to be tested.

I can tell you that a set of traffic lights ordered by the previous council, in a position that would benefit me, was installed about three months ago and has never been switched on because of its new role in this scheme.

On a personal level, I am actually often annoyed when a driver does stop to let me past without considering whether I'm waiting for him to go past. But I live in a smallish town where it's possible to cross the street without either government intervention or the largesse of the carowning class.


*Probably more because they think it'll cost less money to not pay for any road signs, traffic calming etc etc.

Tim Almond said...

"4x4s would pay more than small cars."

Why should cars with a 4 wheel drivetrain pay more than those with a 2 wheel drivetrain?

Paulie said...

I take your point Tim. I should be talking about large cars in general rather than specifically about 4x4s. The general point, though, is that cars that are large enough to put a barrier between the driver and the public are, indirectly, a cause of anti-social behaviour. And if it can't be stopped, I want compensation.